"Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer, ought to be." — David Thornburg

For the ICT4D fieldworker, the mobile phone is your Swiss Army Knife.

It can be used for communications, for note-taking, for photography and video, for searching new information, and for tracking and real-time monitoring.

There is no single solution or one-size-fits-all approach to mobile phones. It's important to talk to colleagues and trusted community members, in order to gain as much insight as you can on the mobile phone landscape.

As with laptops, there are a number of considerations you'll want to think through as you purchase, acquire, and/or include mobile phone devices as part of your utility belt of devices.

There are a out there as well to help you get started.

Smartphone vs. feature phone

For the most part, phones can be divided into these two broad categories—smartphones and feature phones (or dumb phones). There is a vast spectrum of devices that fit somewhere between these two extremes.

It's important to consider the general pros and cons of each type of mobile phone as you think about the environment where you will want to use it (personal device, only for safety-and-security, using a data plan, etc.).

  • Smartphone
    • Pros: Advanced operating system allows for web browsing, offline apps, access to email, social media, messaging, potential for multiple SIMs, great for media consumption and reading.
    • Cons: Expensive, limited battery life, fragile, not available locally, perhaps out-of-alignment with cultural appropriateness.
  • Feature phone
    • Pros: Rugged, cost-effective, long battery life, dependable.
    • Cons: Limited functionality, only basic texting and phone features.

Operating systems

Most phones operate on either Android or iOS, the two primary operating systems. Though you will also find Windows phones, Blackberries, and Nokia's Symbian still available as well.

There is no concrete rule here about which operating system is across-the-board superior, either for organizations or indivudals. While it is true that in the developing world, Android has a much greater market share of mobile phone devices, you should be particularly skeptical of any blanket statements about which OS is used in a particular enviornment or country or sector.

There are tradeoffs with any direction, but it is worth thinking about the ecosystem of available apps, maintenance and repair opportunities, and your (and your organization's) existing comfort level/preference with one system over another.


GSM and CDMA refer to two different types of network protocols that mobile phone networks use to communicate. Thankfully, this is a lot less complicated than it used to be. Much of the world has adopted the GSM standard (with the exception of certain networks in the US and Japan that use CDMA).

The next generation of wireless data technologies is a little bit more confusing again with competing standards of LTE, WiMAX, and now 5G on the horizon. If you'll be engaging in heavy bandwidth operations, be sure to thoroughly research the details of technologies, plans, coverage, and reviews of actual performance if possible.

Unlocked vs. locked

Many phones bought with a contract are 'locked' to that carrier, meaning you can't use another carrier's SIM card (unique identifier chip – but be careful as there are multiple 'sizes' of SIM cards as well).

If you've had the phone for a couple of years or in some cases just inform your provider that you're going to live overseas, they may offer to 'unlock' your phone which allows you to use any compatible carrier overseas in pay-as-you-go or contract plans.

One great place to learn more about your country of service’s telecommunications environment is the new and very user-friendly GSMA Mobile Connectivity Index.

Tethering and Hotspots

Many smartphones can be used as tethers (both iOS and Android) for connecting a data connection to a specific computer (via Bluetooth or charging cable), or acting as a wireless hotspot that multiple devices (computer and phones) can connect to.

This feature is not available on all devices, might be more tightly limited on bandwidth caps, and might require purchasing additional services from mobile carrier. That said, it is often a good idea to have tethering available as a backup option regardless of the circumstance you find yourself in.

Getting the most from your phone

Using your phone in the field may force you to use it differently than you would use it at home—regardless of which country you're in.

Practice some of these ideas prior to your fieldwork so that you're comfortable with tethering, knowing how to disable background services, and you've downloaded all of the appropriate offline apps and data.

Save your battery

Wi-Fi or cell service only drain your battery a lot when struggling to find a signal – turn them off for extended periods (though they don’t drain it a lot when in good connectivity, contrary to popular belief).

Monitor background services

Aside from saving on battery life, disabling services like location tracking, push notification settings, and background streaming can help safeguard your expensive data usage.

Use Opera’s mini browser

Opera mini uses data compression to deliver smaller sized pages to your device – available for Android, iOS, Blackberry, even Java-enabled feature phones.

Use your smartphone as a hotspot

It’s not always necessary to buy a 3G/4G dongle if you have an unlocked smartphone and can use it as a hotspot. Opt for a physical connection over Bluetooth – it’s faster and often more reliable.

Use a VPN for safety

Virtual Private Networks encrypt your connection even from open Wi-Fi networks (like in cyber-cafes) – they help ensure you have end-to-end security. There are some free ones, though reliable ones will cost a little money – check with your college or university, many have alumni VPN accounts for free.

Don’t forget about the feature phones

It’s always good to have a feature/brick phone as a backup, for emergencies, and for texting on separate phone carriers (when cheaper). These phones have great battery life, are quite inexpensive, are nearly indestructible and can be fixed by almost anyone, and won’t make you stand out in a crowd.

Download offline-friendly apps and content

Use the storage in your smartphone or with SD cards to hold offline maps, offline Wikipedia, offline dictionary apps, and fun apps to learn from your downtmie like knot tying and stargazing.

Last Updated: 8/5/2018, 8:19:06 PM